Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Indian Epic- Travels in Kutch, Gujarat - Birding in Banni

Just before sunrise on Friday morning we were collected from Devpur by an ecologist & his driver from the Centre for Desert and Ocean (CERO) and taken to the Banni Grasslands, a semi-arid region skirting the Great Rann of Kutch for a morning of bird and mammal spotting. That's a desert warbler in the photo above (or sylvia nana, which has to be one of the greatest Latin names ever).

I'm beginning to run out of words to describe Gujarat's astonishing landscape so I think other-worldly is probably the best I can come up with. The odd shaped rock formations and pink-tinged environment were breathtaking at sunrise especially accompanied by the soundtrack of Kutch's dawn chorus.

Other than us, our guide and his driver there wasn't a soul around.

To be honest I was a bit worried about going bird spotting as I know hardly anything about them. I leave food out for them at home and know the difference between a robin, a sparrow and a blackbird but that's about it. I'm also useless at looking through binoculars so I was expecting to spend the morning having to pretend I'd seen things I hadn't.

I needn't have worried. Our guide, Veer's passion for birds, mammals and nature was contagious. He didn't expect either of us to be familiar with the creatures we spotted - he even slowed down to point out a domestic cat (Felis catus). He'd position his telescope on a tripod so we could see exactly what he'd seen. He played their calls on his smart phone and showed us the individual birds in his manual just in case we couldn't understand his accent (we could, his English was excellent). 

The Indian paddy bird.

The common crane (Grus Grus).

A pair of painted sandgrouse. As is usual in the birding world, the boys are prettier than the girls.

Time for our car bonnet breakfast!

The long legged buzzard.

The silence was broken by the sound of bells emanating from a hundred-strong camel caravan passing through. The maldhari* comes from one of Kutch's nomadic tribes, the Jat community, whose forefathers fled from Baluchistan in Pakistan around 500 years ago. Following a feud with the king, the Jats sold all their other animals replacing them with camels to prepare for their 440 mile journey to Gujarat.

*Camel herder.

The maldhari and his family were moving on after a week spent grazing their herd elsewhere in the area. Although the Jats are Muslim and our guide & driver were Hindu they greeted each other warmly. When asked if his family were in need of food and water he happily accepted what was left of our breakfast picnic and continued on his way.

One of the most enchanting things I've ever seen. I'm so glad we bought a bell from the workshop in Nirona, I'll have a reminder of those precious few moments forever.

We came across another tribe of nomads on our journey through Banni. The milk from their water buffalo is so highly prized that each beast is said to be worth over one lakh rupees (£1,100).

The herd is looked after by these young men, also from the Jat community, whose tribe have been herding water buffalo in Kutch for over half an millennia.

We found it very strange that, unlike elsewhere in Gujarat, the nomads showed absolutely no interest in our foreignness and definitely didn't ask us for a selfie.

We also spotted (to name but a few) the white tailed tit , the grey hypocoliusSkye's NightjarSkye's Lark, the MacQueen's bustard, the lesser florican, the cream-coloured courser, the sociable lapwing, the white-browed bush chat, the grey necked bunting, the white bellied minivet, the graceful prinia, and the red-tailed wheatear.

Our favourite spot of the day had to be this gorgeous Indian grey mongoose.

You can see rest of our Banni photos HERE.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Indian Epic - Travels in Kutch, Gujarat - Around Mandvi

Wednesday was spent with fellow Devpur house guests Carey & Gary, exploring the area around the coastal town of Mandvi. Our first call was the Vijay Vilas Palace, a sandy white-domed building set in seven hundred acres of land, the Maharajah's summer retreat during the 1940s and today mostly used as a film set. Although the Rough Guide described the palace as being little visited I think they meant to add by foreigners. It was bursting at the seams with domestic tourists, school trips and local families all of whom were anxious to get their photo taken with the four of us.

I spotted Bollywood goddess Helen in one of the photos hanging in the hallway, one of a number of family pictures lining the walls alongside the rather macabre hunting trophies. The beautiful woman on the left is the Maharani of Kutch.

Oops! Those green mirrored bangles inadvertently slipped on my wrist when we visited Dhordo yesterday. 

You want a selfie with us? We want a photo of you. Always a good trade off.

Although the palace has its own private beach, Ramji thought we'd enjoy the public one more. I think he was right, what's exclusive sunbeds & a posh restaurant compared to camel rides, horses in pom poms and 20p snacks?  

Further up the coast was the estuary, home to the dhow building industry. Each dhow is built entirely by hand, taking around 50 men up to two years to complete. Most of the dhows end up in the Middle East where they're bought by Arab merchants and still used to transport goods. They sell for upwards of half a million pounds.

Having a local to drive us around was hugely advantageous. Ramji chatted to the boat builders who kindly allowed us inside one of their partially built boats.

The trees these planks of wood came from must have been bastard massive!

Look what else we discovered in Mandvi estuary.....

Flamingos! I've never seen them in the wild before. Melanie, I thought of you when we saw them.

Lunch was yet another delicious veg thali in the best named canteen ever, Zorba the Buddha. From 250 to 125 BC Kutch formed part of the Indo-Greek empire and Kutchis are very proud of their Greek heritage. Greek mythology forms part of the school curriculum at the White Eagles School back at Devpur.

We had planned to visit the home of a man who built model ships but he was out of town so Ramji suggested a trip to see some old houses instead.

I can't find any reference to this virtually abandoned village on any of our maps or travel guides so I don't know what the place is called. All I can tell you is that during the late 19th Century it was a prosperous area, home to many wealthy Jain merchants. Over the years they either moved away or died and, due to the size of many Indian families and the country's complicated inheritance laws, the homes were locked up and are now rarely visited. Most are still furnished, packed with their previous owners' precious belongings. Oh, how we wished we could have looked inside.

Virtually abandoned it might have been but I still managed to find people to chat to. This is Saiya, proud mother of seven daughters including Yasmin & Prini. They told me that they liked having no boys in the family, girls are better. As you can see, not all Indian women are tiny, these beautiful women towered over me.

And from old houses to new rooms. Back at the Devpur it was all change, Carey and Gary moved into the Room of 17 Pillars and we moved into Susan's old room, a beautifully bright space with quirky cupboards, Hindu artwork, antique furniture and, like the rest of the house, an amazing selection of Indian-themed literature and glossy travel magazines.

After another sociable and delicious dinner, spent exchanging travel tips with a couple of new arrivals, a couple of women from Delhi who, like Gary & Carey, were filmmakers. Yet again we were in bed by 10pm - our next adventure required a 7am pick-up.

Find all of our Mandvi photos HERE.